Wow, those seems like arbitrary dates, hey? Well, I am up to Hallowe’en Party in my reading of Christie (mostly in order, too…), and will more than likely read the final four novels she wrote — Passenger to Frankfurt (1970), Nemesis (1971), Elephants Can Remember (1972), and Postern of Fate (1973) — this year, and they’re near-universally agreed to be terrible. So this seems a good point to do some reflecting.
In light of my recent favourable experience with Ellery Queen’s The Chinese Orange Mystery (1934), my thoughts turn to the benefits and pitfalls of reading GAD authors’ novels in chronological order. The old joke is that they had to write them in that order, but is there any real benefit or detriment in reading them so arrayed?
George Orwell’s essay ‘Decline of the English Murder’ (1946) is focussed not on the quality of said fictional undertakings but rather the attitudes of a society suffering the “brutalising effects of war” and thus immune to the horror of murder the perspectives of both commission and punishment. Citing the case of the Cleft Chin Murder, in which three people were killed with no meaningful motivation and the opprobrium of the public was vented upon the couple responsible, the sentiment of the final line is easily the most powerful; “crimes as serious as murder should have strong emotions behind them”.
In October 1944 and January 1945, the American newspaper columnist, writer, and critic Edmund Wilson published two essays entitled, respectively, ‘Why Do People Read Detective Stories?’ and ‘Who Cares Who Killed Roger Ackroyd?’. The second was in response to the exhortations from readers who, appalled by the first, sent him recommendations to improve his outlook…recommendations which, by all accounts, failed miserably.
Slightly belatedly, here are my thoughts on the companion piece to ‘The Scoop’ (1931), another portmanteau mystery written for radio by some of the luminaries of the Golden Age. This time around, Hugh Walpole sets the problem of a dead body found in your typical Stage 3 suburban household, and Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Anthony Berkeley, E.C. Bentley, and Ronald Knox contribute to its unpicking.
It is tremendously difficult to write about gender these days without appearing to be trying to sneak through some (usually unpleasant) agenda. If anything in the following causes any reader jump to such a conclusion about my intentions, I urge that hypothetical reader to take a glance through any selection of posts on this site — all written by the author of what you’re reading now — to assure themselves that this in no way features in my plans. I am simply, out of curiosity, asking a question that happens to involve gender.
And the question is this: Has Golden Age Detective fiction been subjected to a deliberate feminisation? And, if so, to what end?
If you came to me at this precise moment in time and expressed both an ignorance of and an interest in the work of Agatha Christie, these are the ten books I’d recommend picking one to start from (presented chronologically, let’s not play Favourites):
Most fans of Golden Age detective fiction (GAD) will be aware of the portmanteau novel The Floating Admiral (1931) in which many luminaries of the form each contributed a chapter in turn to a murder mystery plot (pity poor Anthony Berkeley, who had to unravel all the clues and events to provide a coherent solution in the final chapter). I’m imagining that slightly — but only slightly — fewer of you will be aware of the precursors to this novel written in the preceding year, where the same sort of approach was taken for two mysteries to be broadcast on radio.
You suggested the titles, you voted, and now here we are: these are the top ten novels demonstrating fair-play in detective fiction as selected by nearly 500 votes on 40 titles. Except there are twelve of them, because we had a few ties. So, alphabetically by author we have…